The art of photographing Santa Fe
How many states can you visit that have the oldest church in the country, the oldest state Capitol and the only one in a totally round building, a Native American reservation that’s been operating continuously for over 1,000 years and can also boast some amazing food everywhere you look?
That would be New Mexico, a state I find the greatest muse for my photography, one that brings me back, year after year.
The great photographer Ansel Adams couldn’t get enough of the Land of Enchantment, and neither could painter Georgia O’Keefe. And if it was good enough for them, it’s certainly great for me.
Adobe buildings everywhere you look, that old (like over 400 years, pre-Revolutionary War) church (San Miguel) and what’s billed as the oldest building in continuous use, the Palace of the Governors, which also tops 400 years. Those are in Santa Fe.
Add the yearly bird migration in Bosque Del Apache that brings hundreds of photographers every December to capture the tens of thousands of snow geese doing their annual “blast-off” after sunrise.
There’s a town devoted to nothing but pie (Pie Town) the majestic White Sands National Park, a kitschy ode to aliens called Roswell and of course, the Four Corners and Monument Valley, a sight seen in so many westerns.
I can’t think of a state with so many photo ops. Sure, California has the Golden Gate Bridge and Big Sur, Nevada has the craziness of Las Vegas, Utah has the great national parks Zion, Bryce and Arches, Oregon has the rocky, dramatic coast, Illinois and New York have their Chicago and New York skylines and such great opportunities for street photography.
But can you get blue corn enchiladas there? Or cornbread with green chile?
So let's talk photographing Santa Fe.
Resident Noah Lopez told me Santa Fe was a “theme park” like experience of adobes everywhere you look, along with great art, historic churches, the USA’s oldest state capital, museums, amazing food, chilis hanging everywhere you look and more.
To photographer Nevada Wier, it’s just simply the inspiration. “It’s an art town. You come here for the air and the art. You’re breathing in this fantastic 7,000 feet rarified air, and then everywhere you look, on every street, there’s some form of art.
They call Santa Fe "The City Different." Why does it get that monicker? Try a city formed by a mix of so many different cultures--Spanish, Mexican, Indigenous and Wild West.
If you’ve watched “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” you know that the co-star of the shows are the rich desert landscape of New Mexico. The shows were made in Albuquerque, about an hour away, but they’ve occasionally ventured north to Santa Fe, most noticeably when Bob Oldenkirk’s character Jimmy took a job he hated in the capital city.
Most old New Mexico towns were built around a town plaza where Native Americans traded goods. The plaza is still the center of town, and most of it is shops selling either curios or high end clothing. Photo opps in the Santa Fe plaza aren't great. However, if you’d like to see some amazing churches, St. Francis is one block up from the plaza, and is a delight. But the big two you want to visit are down a few side streets. Loretto Chapel is home to the “miraculous staircase,” a 20-foot round staircase that is somehow held up without suspension.
Pro tip: Get here really early, before the crowds. My favorite shot here was actually the ceiling. Meanwhile, that “oldest” church, dating back to the 1600s, is the San Miguel Mission. The interior is nice, but I fell in love with the classic adobe building exterior. I’m no Ansel Adams, but when I went black and white on the shot, I felt like I was channeling the master.
Go up a few blocks from St. Francis to the Cross of the Martyrs, just northeast of the Plaza, for the best view looking down at the city. The other great spot is at the rooftop deck of La Fonda, a 100-year-old hotel that dominates the plaza.
It’s just a few blocks away as well. It’s just a few blocks away as well. How can you not want to see a round statehouse? Like at San Miguel, I fell in love with the dome. I got the shot by laying on my back and looking up.
Where to stay
We loved our location when we visited—just a few blocks from the Plaza, at the Santa Fe Motel Motel on Cerrillos Road. The rooms were nicely southwest decorated and comfy, and again, the location can’t be beat.
There’s not a lot of parking in the Plaza, and besides, you see so much more when you walk. Further down the road, but too far away to stroll to the Plaza is the El Rey Court, a 1950s styled motor court that suits my tastes to a T. You expect to see Thunderbirds and convertible Mustangs parked in front of the rooms.
Where to Eat
Where not to? Any place you visit is going to have some of the best (New) Mexican fare you’ve ever experienced in your life! We particularly loved the home cooking at Casa Chimayo where we shared the Blue Corn Huarache plate and had a long chat with the Quintanas, the owners/chefs, about New Mexico food and why it’s so special.
“You go to Paris for wine. You come to New Mexico for chiles,” Benina said.
Two other restaurants we really liked: The Plaza Cafe, right there on the Plaza, is another classic, the oldest restaurant in Santa Fe, circa 1905. I skipped the Grilled Cheese sandwich and had a terrific plate of Blue Corn Enchiladas and had a tortilla burger at the Pantry. The other (big) highlight was Cafe Pasqual’s, where Ruth enjoyed mole-topped chicken enchilada plate with jicama salad and cilantro rice, while I was satisfied with the plate of amazing cornbread with green chiles and corn. It was so great, I’d drive back over again tomorrow just for the cornbread!
What to do
Walk around and photograph! You know? Move those legs and find yourself surrounded by inspiring adobe buildings, great art, the smells, the light. Catch the video for more tips on that!
Santa Fe highlight
To my pal Scott Bourne, who I spent time with at Bosque Del Apache photographing birds, it’s the Georgia O’Keefe museum, and seeing the amazing work of the former New Mexico resident in one place. For my wife Ruth, it’s just the food culture.
While my stomach remembers the cornbread, of course for me, highlights are going to be photographic. Walking up the hill to the Martyrs of the Cross for sunset, arriving early to photograph the the miracle staircase at Loretto Chapel before the crowds arrived, lying on my back on the floor and looking up to capture the entire round dome of the state capital?
Yes to all, but my highlight is pretty simple: just being in Santa Fe, seeing, smelling, experiencing the City Different streets and snapping away when inspiration hit. Which was pretty often!